Review of the Day: Dreamers by Yuyi Morales
Work in the children’s book business long enough and you run the risk of harboring grudges. Or, to be more specific, grudges o’ love. Grudges on behalf of the hardworking authors and illustrators that never seem to get their adequate due. There are whole lists of talented people out there that somehow don’t appeal to award committees, year after year, in spite of their supreme talents. That’s why it makes me so happy when things begin to change. Yuyi Morales may be a name new to you, but I’d been following her career closely over the years. Her remarkable model work on her Caldecott Honor winning book Viva Frida was preceded five years earlier by the unjustly ignored model work she did on Tony Johnston’s My Abuelita. And for all that the Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor given to Thunder Boy Jr. celebrated her unique ability to enclose and encircle and gather together, where was the wide acclaim for her earlier Mexican wrestler delight Nino Wrestles the World? So you can imagine my happiness when I saw Dreamers for the first time. Not since Jerry Pinkney’s Lion and the Mouse have I had such a palpable sense of a long-term artist finally getting their due. Now, at long last, the world will know better the name “Yuyi Morales”. And keep knowing it too, if I don’t miss my guess.
On the title page, a girl sleeps on a desk, a pencil fallen from her hand and drawings scribbled beneath her. Turn the page and now that same hand is holding a pencil, but it is adult now. It has written “Amor – Love – Amor.” above the image of a mother and child falling towards one another. The text reads, “I dreamed of you, then you appeared.” The child is tiny and the two travel across a bridge to a place full of fog and bats and words that cannot be understood. Unable to connect, the two learn, make mistakes, and just walk endlessly until they reach “a place we had never seen before.” The books there are for the taking and it is “Where we didn’t need to speak, we only needed to trust.” And with trust comes knowledge. And with knowledge comes creativity and art and the ability to find your own voice. And the hand that at the start wrote “Amor – Love – Amor” writes “Love Amor Love” at the end. A personal note from the author and an extensive Bibliography of “Books That Inspired Me (and Still Do)” bring everything to a close.
Okay. Quiz time. Books closed, people. And no Googling when I finish my question, okay? Ahem. Please name me three picture book memoirs, written by their subjects. Go. A tricky proposition, is it not? The memoir, by its very definition, unless written by a child is going to be about an adult remembering either a specific moment in their life or a moment in their childhood. I’ve seen a wide range of them over the years too. On the more fantastical side you’d get books like William Joyce’s Billy’s Booger: A Memoir, which look at childhood memories. On the opposite side of the spectrum there’s Michael Rosen’s gut-wrenching The Sad Book about the death of his son and the aftermath of grief. Jacqueline Woodson takes a broader view, chronicling her family, but always including herself, in books like Show Way and This Is the Rope. Yuyi’s book is interesting because of the books mentioned here, Dreamers actually bears more in common with The Sad Book than any other. But where Rosen’s story is about how the relationship between a father and son is cut short, Yuyi’s is about how a son’s life is poised on the outset to begin, and how she soars right alongside him. To pair the two together is to pair life with death, grief and hope. And it speaks to the depth and breath of picture book memoirs, for clearly there are as many ways to write them as there are pages in a tree.
Which leads, in its oh so natural way, to the question that invariably comes up when folks start talking about picture book memoirs: Is this really a book for children? It’s not a ridiculous question, but it does speak to a lot of assumptions people have when they discuss literature for small children. There is an unspoken understanding that unless the hero of your book is small and has either feathers or fur, they cannot be both adult and the story’s protagonist. Never mind anything else. Adult humans bereft of magic are not considered sufficient heroes in young children’s stories. Not unless there’s something goofy about them, like they grow balloons out of the ground, are whimsical, or have magic powers. Now in the case of Dreamers the question is fraught because while this is a memoir it is also a celebration of both mother and child. In this way, it at times feels like it would fit in with the baby shower books. You couldn’t take a dart and throw it in a bookstore without hitting a picture book about a parent celebrating the birth of their child somewhere in the stacks. These books are invariably given at baby showers, ostensibly to the child when really it’s for the parent. Is Dreamers such a book? Some might think so. Others, however, would dig a little deeper and examine precisely what’s going on here. Because here’s the secret of the whole endeavor: Any picture book is for children if the adult reader has a clue about how to tackle it. And just because the adult is telling the story, that doesn’t mean kids aren’t going to be able to parse together what they say.
Here’s one method for engaging child readers: Let them decipher each picture. There’s a method of teaching picture books called The Whole Book Method (founded by Megan Dowd Lambert, developed in association with the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art) that, simply put, forgoes the idea of reading “to” children and engages by reading “with” children. Books like Dreamers are perfect for this method of reading collaboration. What’s nice is that Yuyi has put all the clues there before you. For example, notice how the English words when the mother and child first arrive appear as backwards letters in the clouds. I’m reminded of the words in Shaun Tan’s own immigration book, The Arrival. Like Yuyi, he sought to make the words in the book simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar, so he would cut them up and rearrange them in unfamiliar patterns. No fool, she pays homage to him, including The Arrival in her book on the page where it reads “and to make our voices heard.” But there are other details that reward rereadings as well. Early in the book, Yuyi writes, “Once day we bundled gifts in our backpack.” Inside we see the neck of a guitar, a raining cloud, a sun, a moon, a star, a flower, a skeleton coiffing its hair, a howling animal, a beaded heart, a volcano, a leaf, a pencil, and a bird. That backpack remains on the mother’s back for the whole of the book until the moment the librarian offers a library card. Then, and only then, the “gifts” burst out of the backpack, though it is interesting to note that while the mother offers her baby to the card, she keeps at least one foot rooted in her gifts. After that, the gifts fly about the both of them, replaced in the backpack by books. Finally, there are aspects to the art that defy normal conventions and invite the most interesting of speculations. You, the adult reader, could build whole discussions with your kids regarding the mother’s skirt in this book. Is it even a skirt? Is it feathers? Is it fire? Why does it reach up when it could reach down? Is there a significance to that?
Under normal circumstances, when I want to find out how the art in a picture book was created, I turn to the publication page. There, in words almost too tiny to make out with the naked eye, the publisher will sometimes answer the curious reader’s questions. You can read how the book was done in watercolors or on a computer. Sometimes, if they’re feeling particularly inventive, they’ll say how the art was constructed with raw cotton, or photographed glass, or fire! In this book, Yuyi Morales includes an explanation of the art that I would write here but cannot because I haven’t the space. She begins with the usual suspects. The acrylics on paper with ink (“and a nib pen that once belonged to Maurice Sendak”). But much of the art here consists of photographed images of textures and papers and fabrics that carry special meaning for Ms. Morales. Kelly’s childhood drawings. The floor of her studio. Walls from the streets of her hometown. By the end of reading this, the Bibliography, and the Author’s Note at the back, you are perfectly aware of what a personal book this is to its creator. And like any good memoir, only by making the book as specific and personal as possible is Ms. Morales capable of tapping into the truly universal.
Yuyi Morales is hardly the first person to pay tribute to other children’s book writers and illustrators by including images of their jackets in a book, but she may be the first I’ve seen to do so many and NOT fall back on the usual suspects. Usually, when this is done, it is rote. Cat and the Hat next to If You Give a Mouse a Cookie next to The Very Hungry Caterpillar, or what have you. The very first thing I noticed in this book was that the titles were (A) Clearly beloved favorites but NOT overly familiar and (B) All from a very specific publication period. A Mother for Choco by Keiko Kasza was my first tipoff that this book wasn’t going in the usual directions. Looking closer at her choices I saw a wide array of publication dates, a special attention paid to creators of all backgrounds, and even the occasional adult title (Woman Hollering Creek by Sandra Cisneros) slipped in on the sly. And not just book covers either. Repeated inspections of the pages reveal title after title after title, accurate right down the spine, the font, and the colors of the jackets themselves.
I just stopped myself from launching into a whole paragraph about the possible Christian imagery you could find in the book if you really wanted to, but let’s sideline that discussion for another day, shall we? The fact of the matter is that Dreamers is the best kind of picture book because it makes you want to think and discuss and think some more and get opinions from other people, and still think. It opens up discussions, not just about the ideas I’ve listed here, but about immigration, loneliness, the Dreamers and undocumented. Yuyi Morales writes in the back of this book, “All of us have stories. Each of them is different.” And then at the end, “Now I have told you my story. What’s yours?” I think the better parts of our lives are spent in trying to figure out what we want to dream at all. Books like this one help. They help kids. They help parents. They help everyone. A clear-cut example of the rarest kind of best we hope for when we read a book to our children. You couldn’t ask for better.
For ages 5 and up.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
- The Making of Dreamers at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
- In Conversation: Yuyi Morales and Neal Porter—Publishers Weekly
- Yuyi Morales Talks with Roger: A Horn Book Interview
- Letter from the Editor, Neal Porter
- NYT Facebook Live! interview
- Listen to the Science of Happiness podcast
- SLJ’s Day of Dialog closing keynote
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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